Sunny Sumter is a singer, an advocate, a 30 year veteran of the D.C. jazz scene, a Jazz Journalist Association “Jazz Hero” and the President, CEO and long-time Executive Director of the DC Jazz Festival. Since joining the festival as executive director in 2008, Sumter has been instrumental to shaping the annual event into its modern incarnation of “Capital Sounds, Global Reach.” The festival, now in its 18th year, was held annually in June until 2021 when it moved to Labor Day Weekend.
After two years and six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival is still going strong and offering a great plethora of jazz music over the next few days. District Fray called Sumter last week to get her perspective on the highs of this year’s festival and why it is truly a unique, D.C.-centric event.
District Fray: Has the festival’s programming changed as a result of the pandemic? Are there things that you want the festival to bring to D.C. and focus on that it hasn’t previously?
Sunny Sumter: I think we’ve always had a pulse on making sure everybody is represented under the umbrella of “jazz,” and that’s been from [D.C. Jazz Festival founder] Charlie Fishman on. Jazz is really an international art form. No matter where you are in the world, you put your own folk element into the mix. The music that we all call “jazz” is so inclusive and so international that I think it has given us a springboard, particularly now.
We are much more thoughtful in our approach to the festival. When we program 80% of it, we then go back and say, ‘What’s missing?’ One of the things we thought we knew was missing [this year] was the Mambo Legends Orchestra.
I mean, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra went off so well last year.
Oh, my goodness! Didn’t I see you dancing? That was so much fun and we actually have a salsa class this year that will happen on the same day on Recreation Pier. Then people can take the class and show what they learn on the dance floor while Mambo is doing their thing!
[But] we wanted to make sure that Ron Carter, his trio — that you traditionally will hear at an indoor venue, because there’s so much intimacy with his playing — was outside.
How does being at The Wharf now change the way you program?
I wish we had a couple more million dollars so we could go back to 10 days and do it city-wide and really be able to put the funding into this big, 10-day offering. We’re [doing] five days, of which the tent-poll weekend is The Wharf — and we’ve always had a tent pole weekend, when we were at Navy Yard or on the National Mall. But I think that as The Wharf has now expanded, we can have more outdoor stages, which means more talent we can present outdoors, [giving] our patrons more of an opportunity to really see it. We’ve got over 50 acts between the performances and the conversations, which I think are just as important.
There are thousands of jazz festivals in the world; how do you try to make the DC Jazz Festival stand out and have its own curatorial, artistic statement?
I think the uniqueness is that it is in D.C., in the nation’s capital. We have Embassy Row; we have access to our embassy partners so we can tap into the international talent. To have a relationship with the Ministry of Taiwan, which we do, to bring Chien Chien Lu on vibraphone — I’ve seen her live, she is so special — and then to partner with the Canadian Embassy to bring Larnell Lewis, a Canadian jazz drummer we know from Snarky Puppy and his wife, who is a steel-pan player from Trinidad; to partner with the Embassy of France to bring Patrick Zimmerli. That is unique about D.C., that we have such a front row opportunity to partner with the embassies. Then I think I’m going to just brag and say that D.C. has some of the best musicians in the world, that live right here!
And I think that is unique. You don’t find that in most major cities, but we’ve created it in this town. I’m glad I got to drink the water of jazz while I was at Howard as a student in the 90s. I remember just feeling so blessed that there was so much jazz around me all the time. There’s this lineage and this great respect for the elders. I’ve been in the music now for 30 years and I’ve watched it and it’s beautiful with the passing of the baton to each generation involved, makes this city such a thriving jazz town.
The 18th Annual DC Jazz Festival runs through September 4 at multiple venues on The Wharf.